A Nonprofit Re-Imagining Marketing To Millennials

Rick C. Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. … [+] Jude Children’s Research Hospital. (taken in 2020). ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital When thinking of Marketing to Millennials and the topic of philanthropy more often than not we think of a co-hort […]

When thinking of Marketing to Millennials and the topic of philanthropy more often than not we think of a co-hort that has been generous with their time.  They are often the volunteers that make events happen and they put in the time to plan and execute myriad programs that raise money and awareness for organizations.

ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has not historically targeted Millennials in their outreach but as this co-hort is in peak child-rearing years, the nonprofit has made pivots to be more relevant and engage Millennials with Kids.

 I had the opportunity to visit with Rick Shadyac, CEO of ALSAC and dig into their strategies.

Jeff Fromm: How did you start the transformation process? (Covid-19 and digital transformation) 

Rick Shadyac: We actually started transformation well before Covid by anticipating and embracing disruption and grounding ourselves in our why. We know parents around the world count on St. Jude when they hear those devastating words, “your child has cancer,” so we have to continue to grow to be a beacon of hope for them, and that means growing in a rapidly changing world. Several years prior to the pandemic, we focused our strategy around the known and anticipated disruptors in the world – both inside our industry and beyond – as a way to get ourselves in the mindset of prioritizing innovation proactively. And, when you focus on those disruptions and the opportunities that each one holds, certain strategies become crystal clear and they all lead to one conclusion: to grow, you have to transform (how you work, where you work and how you reach out to millions to engage them in your mission). Of course, Covid-19 was not anticipated, but the earlier exercise of our strategic framework empowered and prepared our teams to begin to think through this tragedy in a way that was less reactive and highly strategic from the get-go. We knew immediately that facets of our traditional business model would be greatly disrupted because of Covid-19, including in-person events and fundraisers. But we were prepared to pivot, since we had already been testing and implementing, through cross-department collaborations, new ways of reaching the public in meaningful ways like virtual events and new fundraising platforms from Twitch to Tiltify to YouTube, Facebook and more. A key outcome was the ability to engage digital streams and technology products to continue to share our stories, reach donors and innovate our business model.

 I am proud that each of the dozens of small-and large-scale livestream events, from E-sports competitions to multi-stage concerts, we have conducted since March have originated from staff who thought differently and worked with cross-functional teams to execute rapidly. Each event gave us the opportunity to try something new, learn from our mistakes and apply best practices to the next event. We are all facing new challenges. Organizations should not be afraid to make mistakes, admit failures and learn to be better from those experiences. Drilling down the importance of innovation and instilling it as part of a corporate value system will set companies up to become more nimble, strategic and most importantly, collaborative in times of crisis. 

 So many industries experience disruption every day. The leaders of those industries who weather tough times and come out on the other side are those who have already prepared their teams for disruption, face the challenges as opportunities to grow, and become better at what they do based on where things are going, not where they have been.

Fromm: How do you create a culture of innovation? 

Shadyac: Innovation is already in our DNA as it was a world changing idea to create a children’s cancer research hospital at a time of our founding over 60 years ago. At that time, cancer was a death sentence and healthcare was completely segregated, but not at St. Jude where all children were treated equally and no family received a bill. So, innovation is one of our core values and it’s something every employee is accountable for today. We’ve made it a priority to allow for voices at all levels to be heard and ideas to be tested. It’s advantageous for companies to foster a work culture where people stretch and grow, learn fast and try things, even if they may not end up being executed wholesale. It’s not enough to just encourage employees to be innovative, but to require it.

To that end, ALSAC has defined culture pillars against which employee performance is evaluated, including innovation. Employees are expected to embrace continuous learning and improvement and must submit evidence annually of how they have challenged the status quo and investigated and implemented new ideas. E-learning opportunities are always available, and in-person training focused on innovation is available to help foster growth. Also helping to propel new ideas forward is our Accelerator Program. This twice-yearly effort is a lot of fun for participants who are selected through a self-nominating process which is open to all employees. The program is designed to bring individuals from across the organization together to drive progress on key enterprise transformation initiatives. This method of working in new teams for a collective goal has not only yielded demonstrable success, but it also enhances team building and employee morale.

 We also reach outside of our own company to see how others work and succeed. I can’t underscore enough the relationships we’ve formalized with other innovative companies through our advisory councils, which include members from the world’s biggest digital–first companies and for-profit brands who share their learnings and observations. But these aren’t unilateral friendships. What we’ve learned is that by nurturing relationships with these companies, what often results are mutually beneficial opportunities and partnerships that help position their own brand in new ways, thus opening doors to new audiences and ways of thinking for these larger organizations as well.

Fromm: How did you engage Gen-Zers who usually bypass brands like yours?

Shadyac: Actually, our research shows they aren’t bypassing us. We are capturing them through E-sports, influencers and content creators, as well as through our music-driven livestreams that feature artists who resonate with these audiences, from country music to KPop acts. But beyond our strategic partnerships and innovative ways of reaching this audience – on TikTok and Twitch, for example – it’s really the importance of our mission that attracts them. The impact that our work makes on the lives of others is very clear and younger generations recognize that and want to be involved. In fact, St. Jude has been named one of the top four places to work by Millennials and Gen-Z for eight years in a row (by the National Society of High School Scholars.) Helping others is a strong humanitarian driver for anyone, but especially for Millennials and Gen-Z. These are groups who would consider taking a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own. Young generations have intentionally turned toward purpose in the last few years in all aspects of their lives, including seeking ways to help others through their jobs.

Fromm: How have you addressed racial inequality?

Shadyac: As the first integrated children’s hospital in the South, our mission and work has always been rooted in justice and equality. In the Jim Crow era, hospital doors – like so many others – were closed to minorities. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was different, as our doors were wide open, thanks to our founder Danny Thomas and his pioneering vision for health equality. From the very beginning, by design and against the oppressive culture of the day, children from all backgrounds were welcome. The doctors and nurses also reflected racial diversity, something unseen in organizations during that time, especially in the south. It’s a history of which I’m so proud and it resonates today as we still have so much work to do as individuals and as a nation. As a through line to that foundational work, I’m proud that today 40% of ALSAC employees are people of color and 70% of the enterprise are women, including 40% of women in technology at the organization. We were also the first anchor institution in Memphis to provide a living wage. We have a dedicated Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer and our eight Business Resource Groups (BRGs) reflect the many communities our employees represent. The groups have a shared mission to promote diversity and inclusion by enhancing cultural competency and fostering and supporting an inclusive workplace where employees can bring their authentic selves. And in addition to hosting multiple cultural celebrations yearly as well as numerous learning opportunities, the BRGs also help define and drive our organization’s diversity and inclusion goals.

 I believe that in our hearts and actions, we must stand against racism, injustice and violence of any kind. We must speak up to stop it where we encounter it. We must create safe and inclusive environments where all can thrive.

For questions about this interview, please contact Jeff at [email protected]

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